The Vermont Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would dedicate $100 million toward the expansion of broadband access in the state.
The bill, H.360, would funnel a portion of the $1 billion in federal relief aid Vermont is receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act toward the goal of improving broadband access in underserved rural areas. The money would be sent directly to local communications districts and small private providers, while a new three-member board — similar to the now-defunct Vermont Telecommunications Authority — would manage the funding and provide financial, technical and administrative support.
"The pandemic has highlighted the absolute necessity of high-speed internet access," Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) said in a press release. "We have seen too many students struggle with remote learning and too many seniors that can't access tele-health. We can't fix that instantly, but this bill demonstrates our firm commitment to expand access to high-speed internet for all."
The bill previously passed the House and will come up for a final reading in the Senate on Wednesday. The chambers would then need to consider the differences between their versions before they can send a final bill to Gov. Phil Scott's desk.
One key difference centers around who would be allowed to receive the funding. Instead of sending money directly to internet service providers, the House bill would funnel grants to communication union districts — a type of municipal entity that can both build broadband infrastructure themselves or work with private internet providers to expand service. Vermont currently has nine such districts serving more than 200 towns statewide.
The Senate bill, meanwhile, would allow small private providers to receive funding, too. Senators who supported the tweak said it was an attempt to serve areas of the state that aren't currently members of a communication district. Only companies that operate in three or less Vermont counties would be eligible.
The two bills also propose to spend different amounts — at least initially. The House bill calls on the state to spend $150 million from the most recent federal COVID-19 relief package, while the Senate version offers $100 million. Lawmakers in that chamber, though, wrote in their budget bill that they intend to spend another $50 million in the coming years.
Both proposals fall short of a plan Scott proposed last month that would have spent $250 million in federal aid on broadband expansion over three years.
At one of his twice-weekly press conferences on Tuesday, Scott reiterated his belief that the most recent federal windfall poses a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to tackle long-standing issues such as a lack of universal broadband access. He suggested the state would need to spend twice the amount proposed by the legislature to address the problem, and said he hoped lawmakers recognize that more needs to be done.
"I don't want to wake up three or four years from now and look back and ask ourselves, 'Where did all the money go?'" he said.